Lately there have been numerous discussions and debates centered on corporate control of water and wind, and now our broadband and Internet access is being threatened by out-of-state corporations. The Aug. 4 Bangor Daily News reports that FairPoint Communications has hired a well-known public utility lobbying firm to oppose the University of Maine System’s efforts to bring better broadband and Internet access to Maine. Just like First Wind’s efforts to control wind generation sites, and Nestle’s continuing attempts to privatize our water, FairPoint now seeks to privatize broadband and, in the height of arrogance, says it’s unfair for a public university to compete against a private company for public funds.
Like water, broadband is part of the commons, a set of assets that we all share. The commons encompass three areas — natural, cultural and community. Air, water, ecosystems and the like constitute the natural commons, and our language, laws and traditions are part of the cultural commons. Community commons include the public infrastructure, such as our system of highways, roads and bridges, our right to access education and health care, along with public safety such as police and fire protection. Broadband and Internet access have become an integral part of our public communications infrastructure. They are part of the community commons.
It is a community’s responsibility to protect and preserve the commons, without regard to the return on capital, and it is therefore inherently counter to this shared responsibility to privatize any aspect of the commons. Private property is exclusionary, yet unlike the natural commons, the community commons is less in danger of being depleted and should therefore be openly shared with all. If our broadband is to be owned by a profit-making entity, the inevitable result will be exclusionary and will greatly disadvantage those individuals — and small businesses — with the lowest incomes.
Ironically, it is the rural communities of our state — the poorest communities — that are most in need of increased access to the Internet.
The battle looming in Maine about what entity will most effectively increase broadband throughout the state must be won by an entity that will increase — not limit — access to the Internet. Since the Internet can be used almost without limit, it is absolutely necessary that we not cede control of broadband, and Internet access, to a corporate entity, particularly one that is experiencing so much trouble just trying to deliver basic 20th century telephone service to its customers.
While the University of Maine System has the technical capacity to participate in the initial goal of increasing broadband and Internet access, in essence bridging the last mile between the Internet and nonusers, our ultimate goal should be community ownership of the means of Internet access. Once the technical aspects of the digital divide are overcome, public ownership is the only way to truly protect and democratize this aspect of the commons. Since the Internet now carries data, television, music and telephone services, wireless technology allows local governments, public-private partnerships, schools and community groups to offer faster, cheaper and more reliable Internet and telecommunications service. Hundreds of communities across the country now are building their own wireless community Internet systems and we should look toward this model. Broadband and Internet access are crucial to the success of Maine business and Maine residents.
Given how much we now pay for telephone and cable services, utilizing the Internet for delivery of such services could be a tremendous cost saver for everyone, including the businesses, hospitals and other large entities that are forced to pay for bandwidth that they don’t use regularly, as well as the small merchants and professionals who often are forced to pay exorbitant prices to telecom companies that hold virtual monopolies.
Yet we now have here a telecom company that is whining about unfair competition. The high-paid lobbyists for FairPoint say the right of their client to profit trumps the right of a community — and a state — to serve its residents.
Lynne Williams of Bar Harbor is an attorney and a Green Independent Party candidate for governor in 2010.